Plant Cultivation Expert: Could The Future Of Food Be Free?
Mattias Lepp, founder of Click & Grow, discusses how he's planning to develop the world’s leading technology company for growing food in cities
There is a scene in The Matrix when the crew of Nebuchadnezzar sat around eating a slimy, tasteless, porridge-like substance. Tank, the operator of Nebuchadnezzar, described it as “the breakfast of champions.” I’ve always dreaded the idea that this non-nutritional, bland food would be what we’d eat in the future. One of the best-known futurologists, Jeremy Rifkin, notes in several of his books that the meat we’ll be eating in the future will be grown as a uniform mass in tissue baths and our “vegetables” will mostly consist of seaweed. He’s not alone—several modern recognized futurologists and economists see this as the most likely scenario for the future of food.
Unlike futurologists, who engage in thought exercises about what we’ll be eating in the next century, I’ve created a technology that currently enables us to produce food in a way that’s familiar to us yet is also compatible with the issues we’ll be facing in the future.
While it may be an advanced technology already providing solutions to problems, there are still many questions I am seeking to answer, such as: how will food be produced in the future and how many people will have access to it? Will it have to be that slimy “breakfast of champions” or tasteless biomass that’s consumed just to stay alive? Or can we preserve traditional food culture, where food is, among other things, a pleasure? To achieve that, we would need to significantly change the fundamental substances that we consume today. There’s no way around it—food must become significantly more plant-based.
This plant-based diet notion becomes especially evident when you look at people’s eating habits as they relate to the frantic pace of the growing population. Today, a child dies of a hunger-related disease every 10 seconds and 66 million children go to school or to bed with an empty stomach. And it’s not just an issue for third-world countries. In the United States alone, nearly 13 million children suffer from malnourishment and every fourth person has suffered hunger at some point in their lives. At the rapid pace our society is growing, we will need to produce almost 70% more food in 2050 than we do today.
How can technology help?
We’re used to linking innovation with technology. Although most of the time it’s reasonable, I’ve noticed a change in the last five to 10 years where technology has become an object and its function has become incidental. We see hundreds, if not thousands, of companies that develop smart frying pans, toasters and other appliances that make cooking fun, but don’t tackle the actual issues we will soon face. There are certainly companies that are trying to solve an important problem for mankind regarding food, but more and more often I’ve noticed a fascination with technology as such, but not with the understanding of the problem itself.
The most widely-used technologies in indoor food cultivation today are hydroponics and aeroponics. They became popular in the 1970s when NASA started to develop them for its Mars mission. At the time, it probably wasn’t so much of being concerned with sustainably but with trying to figure out how to make the lives of its astronauts more humane and “Earth-like” in space. Strangely enough, we have adopted these technologies and now more than 90% of the world’s indoor farms use it to grow food. But has anyone asked whether this technology is actually best-suited for this purpose?
Aeroponics is a soil-less technology, where the plant’s roots hang in the air and are sprayed with nutrients. In hydroponics, the plant’s roots are constantly in a water-based nutrient solution. The mere thought of growing plants without soil, so that the roots develop in the air or in a nutrient solution, is fascinating to any serious food-tech enthusiast. This wonderful symbiosis of technology and nature captivated me 15 years ago and it made me abandon my life as an orchestra conductor. Like thousands of entrepreneurs all over the world, I was fascinated by technology and forgot all the important questions that help technology shape our future. These questions didn’t stay forgotten, but it did take me three years of developing products and two million dollars’ worth of spending to eventually start asking them again. The first product I ever made was perceived as a real technological masterpiece. Newspapers and magazines all over the world wrote about it and users loved its beautiful, innovative design. It had one major flaw, though—it didn’t solve any real problems.
So, I decided to take a step back and discovered that if we want to make food production more sustainable, than we should think about how to tie technological development with nature’s logic. To make a leap in food availability today and in the future, we should focus on enabling everyone to grow their own food, even in urbanized environments.
Since hydroponic systems are often expensive due to their sensors, pumps and other mechanical components and maintenance needs, we decided to opt for modern science and nanotechnology to develop a material that behaves exactly like soil. This soil—what we call Smart Soil—aerates, balances the pH level, doses nutrients and regulates humidity, all the same way it happens in nature, not needing any expensive components or manual input to grow plants.
So, thanks to Click & Grow technology, we can work toward giving people the opportunity to grow their own fresh food with zero effort. Imagine growing your own food at your home or office or at restaurants and schools. Or, imagine buying fresh food from the supermarket that is grown right then and there. No energy or fuel waste, no need to spray with pesticides, herbicides or any other harmful substances. Click & Grow already has solutions that do just that. Modular indoor farms that use little energy, grow food locally and keep it as fresh and healthy as possible.
The key to all our solutions is the Smart Soil and its ease of use. In many ways the user logic behind our gardens is similar to the Nespresso or Keurig coffee machines, but instead of coffee capsules, we use biodegradable plant capsules. If you want to grow tomatoes, you choose the capsule with the tomato seed inside, insert it into our garden or farm and a couple of weeks later you’ll have tomato without the need to plant the seeds, water them, fertilize them, loosen the soil and so on. Our gardens, farms and smart soil will take care of all that.
I have a personal goal to change the way we consume and grow fresh food and I think every person should grow most of their greens at home and my dream goes even further than that. Personally, I believe that the most essential, fresh, vitamin-packed food should be free for everyone on this planet.
Our technology can be utilized in any solution from small indoor gardens to large urban farms. Today, we already have a strong user base that’s growing their own food with our technology and our latest garden, the Smart Garden 9, is the next step in the direction of growing fresh food at home. We are developing systems that could feed entire schools and workplaces. 13 million children in the United States are suffering from hunger, going to school or to bed with an empty stomach and Click & Grow plans to lead the charge in changing that.
With experience in plant cultivation, IT and design, Mattias Lepp is the founder of Click & Grow, along with being responsible for R&D and strategic management at the company. He plans to develop Click & Grow into a world’s leading technology company for growing food in cities.